The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas now has its eye on Houston police officers — particularly those on horses at anti-Donald Trump protests.
After receiving reports of Houston police officers needlessly escalating situations with Trump protesters and "antagonizing" them, the ACLU of Texas is asking new Police Chief Art Acevedo to address the problem with his officers.
In a letter written by ACLU staff attorney Trisha Trigilio, the ACLU expressed concerns that HPD was not respecting protesters' right to free speech, particularly at a downtown anti-Trump rally last month, and that officers were getting too caught up in emotions rather than remaining composed. Five people were arrested at the post-election Trump protest, on November 10, and some claim the charges are false.
"Your arrival in Houston comes at a trying time of heightened emotions and increased public demonstrations in the wake of the election," Trigilio wrote to Acevedo. "Like any other member of the public, police officers may have strong emotions about the outcome of the election or the viewpoint expressed in public demonstrations. But unlike other members of the public, a police officer is uniquely positioned to reinforce public trust in government through professional policing, or undermine that trust through disrespect for people exercising their First Amendment rights."
Trigilio wrote that, as a result of various complaints, the ACLU would be sending a "team of legal observers" to "document police interactions" at upcoming protests planned for Trump's inauguration. "We anticipate that after giving notice of the incidents described [in this letter], there will be no further misconduct for our observers to document," she wrote.
The misconduct the ACLU alleges, according to complaints from protesters, includes: "creating unnecessary conflict" with protesters by dividing them into two groups and not allowing them to use the crosswalks; "arresting protesters on false charges," which the ACLU alleges includes striking police horses; and using excessive force during arrests, "such as pulling hair or bruising people who were otherwise submitting to arrest."
At that November 10 protest, two protesters, 27-year-old Bryan Sweeney and 23-year-old Michael Kouznetson, were charged with resisting arrest for "clutching his arms to his chest" and "throwing his arms up," respectively, though it is unclear from records why police wanted to arrest them in the first place. Trigilio wrote that the resisting arrest charges "strongly suggest that the officer unnecessarily initiated or escalated an encounter."
Kouznetson's arrest is caught on tape, and from the video footage shot by Black Lives Matter Houston leader Ashton P. Woods, it is unclear what Kouznetson could have done to provoke an officer to pull him out of the crowd and arrest him.
Kouznetson and other protesters were standing on the corner of Travis and Preston trying to cross the street to join protesters on the other side, but police would not let them. Protestors kept asking the cops, some mounted on horses, why they could not cross, saying, "When the light changes, we have the right to use the sidewalk."
"I'm gonna have to tell you no," one officer says during the video, apparently without ever providing an explanation to the increasingly agitated protesters.
When the light changes and the walking man signal appears, Kouznetson (identified to the Houston Press by Woods) begins crossing, but retreats after a police officer yells at him. Moments later, the officer then yanks Kouznetson from the crowd and arrests him — possibly for not standing all the way back onto the sidewalk and being confused as to why he couldn't cross the street. Then, police charge with resisting arrest, a misdemeanor, because he "threw his arms up" while being arrested, according to court records. (The arm-flinging was not captured in the video, if it did occur.)
The arrest of 23-year-old student Emily Briones-Garcia is also captured on tape. She is accused of picking up a police body camera from the ground and "concealing it," which is felony tampering with evidence and punishable by up to ten years in prison. Her attorney, Jolanda Jones, insisted to the Houston Chronicle that her client did not do this.
Jones also represented the prominent Houston activist, 40-year-old Shere Dore, who was accused of striking a horse while the mounted officer used the animal to push her back into the crowd. Jones also said Dore is innocent of the charges — interfering with a police service animal, a felony.
Joseph Wade was also accused of hitting a horse, although those charges were not filed until he was already released from jail for "crossing the street where sidewalk provided," a Class C misdemeanor. He is also accused of spitting at a police officer and the horse, which are felonies. Wade has yet to be arraigned.
The other four protesters who were arrested are out on bond. For whatever reason, after Dore made her $2,000 bond, she was taken back into custody when Judge Jim Wallace raised her bail to $5,000, which Dore eventually made.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.